What recent international cyber-bust involves Alicia Keys and the RIAA, elite anti-terror police, missing evidence and a bad warrant, a multi-billion dollar IPO, the world's biggest file-sharing website, and a very large man who owns 14 Mercedes-Benz cars with license plates that say things like "MAFIA" and "HACKER"?
Nope, it's not Lex Luthor's latest caper. I'm talking about the MegaUpload bust. And the increasingly interesting question of whose interests were actually served as a result.
In January, the U.S. Department of Justice, Homeland Security's ICE and members of New Zealand anti-terrorism law enforcement arrived by police helicopter to stage an armed siege at the sprawling mansion-cum-Fortress-of-Doom belonging to MegaUpload's eccentric CEO, Kim Dotcom. The DOJ's raid shut down "cyberlocker" website MegaUpload, seized all assets belonging to Dotcom, and slapped the alleged supervillain with a fistful of criminal charges.
As fascinating as Mr. Dotcom's real-life roleplaying of Auric Goldfinger has been, a lot of us feel increasingly uneasy about the MegaUpload raid. The more we've learned since armed tactical police pried Kim Dotcom out of his mansion's fortified safe room, the less it adds up.
So who was really behind the MegaUpload bust -- and what were they really after? Allow me to unpack two conspiracy theories that have captivated folks who go for that sort of thing.
Conspiracy Theory #1: Grab the data and run
MegaUpload was the 13th most popular site on the Internet and housed piles and piles of data. That information could potentially be worth a lot to someone, and theorists posit that this is the most valuable piece of the MegaUpload pie.
Anyone could use the site, and the user base was massive. This kind of data could be a priceless payload for entertainment lawyers, Feds, and more on down the line to brokers, miners and data dealers.
The data includes names, addresses, digital footprints and file uploads of all MegaUpload users. The estimate on Carpathia's servers is upwards of 25 petabytes of data.
Theorists have a point. The DOJ will certainly make the most of MegaUpload's data, and the MPAA just made a play to get its hands on it.
When MegaUpload's host Carpathia announced that it was unable to reach an agreement with the DoJ to cover the enormous costs of keeping MegaUpload's data (upwards of $9,000 a day) the MPAA said it needed the data because it might want to use it in future lawsuits against "MegaUpload or other entities."
Meanwhile, the feds have admitted making their own copy of some, but not all, of the data.
But is MegaUpload's data really all that precious? It's a little hard to imagine that either Hollywood or the feds plan a new legal assault against individual MegaUpload users -- and even if they did, it could take them a loooong time to find anything incriminating or actionable among 25 petabytes of dross. (Talk about your Big Data projects.)
In other words, while the data might seem valuable, it could just as easily end up a warehoused footnote much like the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones.
Conspiracy Theory #2: DoJ and ICE are Hollywood's thugs
Another oft-repeated suggestion on torrent and tech blogs is that the Department of Justice and ICE are acting on behalf of the entertainment industry.
This is a popular theory. Through its track record of domain shutdowns, ICE -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- has earned the reputation of serving as the MPAA's personal police force.
It's certainly true that the MPAA and the U.S. federal government share a lot of employees. The "revolving door" between the MPAA and Washington has been whirling madly recently.
Some theorists think it's all about the entertainment industry's money. The indictment against MegaUpload accuses Kim Dotcom of costing copyright holders (record labels and movie studios) more than $500 million in lost revenue.
Emails published on TorrentFreak revealed that Disney, Warner Brothers, Turner Broadcasting, and Fox contacted MegaUpload between 2008 and 2010. Fox specifically wanted to work with MegaUpload about "better monetizing" MegaUpload's inventory. We don't know where these talks ended up.
Contrary to conventional wisdom about file-sharing sites and artists, MegaUpload was widely supported by major recording stars because it had become a direct distribution platform for artists.
Big hip-hop names like Diddy and Busta Rhymes were releasing tracks through their own paid accounts on MegaUpload, and were getting up to 90 cents on the dollar for their tracks. They had cut out the RIAA middlemen.
The raid happened 24 hours after it was revealed that Alicia Keys' husband, rapper Swiss Beatz, had been made CEO of MegaUpload, and a month after Dotcom had announced that Megaupload intended to compete head-to-head against the music industry.
But is this even possible? Probably not.
The idea that one file-sharing website could pose such a threat to an entire industry is pretty far-fetched. Sure, some artists supported MegaUpload, but just as many -- if not more -- likely think Dotcom got what was coming.
So is the theory that the federal government could act as a international police force for Hollywood bigwigs. Sure, winged monkeys are expensive minions (the upkeep!), but our system is set up so that entities like RIAA/MPAA can't actually issue a memo to dictate who gets busted by the Feds, and how.
The MegaUpload saga is certainly rife with Hollywood strongarming, feds that land helicopters first and ask questions later, and a self-styled anti-Hollywood villain with an appreciable flair for drama.
But the path of conspiracy theory speculation is paved equally with both insight and, well, madness. So for now, Megaupload conspiracy theories are certainly fun to poke at. But best to use a very long stick.